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Book review: Joseph Cotton Wigram, Bishop of Rochester by Nigel Scotland

03 November 2023

Michael Wheeler finds out about a Victorian Bishop of Rochester

JOSEPH COTTON WIGRAM was born on 26 December 1798, the sixth son of a wealthy merchant shipbuilder and Tory MP, Sir Robert Wigram, and his second wife, Eleanor. Although Joseph was one of 23 children, he inherited enough to make preferment more easily attainable. (In 1861, he and his wife Susan had 12 living-in servants at Danbury Palace.)

He was also deserving, however, being hard-working and efficient throughout his clerical career, as Nigel Scotland frequently reminds us in a carefully constructed account of the bishop. And he was an Evangelical, respected by the Sumner brothers during their ascendancy, and clearly acceptable to Lord Palmerston and the Prime Minister’s stepson-in-law, the 7th Earl of Shaftesbury, who advised him on such matters. Parallels with the current Anglican hierarchy are suggestive.

Privately educated in Fulham, Wigram became a Simeonite at Trinity College, Cambridge, and was ordained deacon in 1822 and priest in 1823. A curacy followed, at Leytonstone, Essex, before he became assistant preacher at St James’s, Piccadilly. Scotland suggests that it was the wealthier members of that congregation who eased Wigram’s path to becoming secretary to the National Society for Promoting the Education of the Poor in the Principles of the Established Church in England and Wales. He flourished in this position, majoring in elementary education and writing several useful books on arithmetic, the geography of the Holy Land, and Sunday schools, a subject close to his heart.

East Tisted, Hants, offered rural calm after life in the inner city in 1839, when he became Rector. Aware that it would be a sin to be idle in the “Lord’s vineyard”, he applied all his pastoral skills and “quiet and firm efficiency” to his work as Archdeacon of Winchester, where Charles Sumner was bishop, working hard on the “mission” in Portsea, for example.

The work of organising parishes and encouraging Sunday schools continued when he became Rector of St Mary’s, Southampton, and later served as Bishop of Rochester from 1860 to his death in 1867. With a diocese that included much of Kent, the whole of Hertfordshire, and most of Essex, and numbered about 600,000 souls, 600 benefices, and 50 rural deans, Bishop Wigram was frequently to be seen on trains, as he travelled around encouraging his clergy to work with the laity and to foster “home missions”.

This pastor and leader of men had time for only one speech in the Lords, however, and his responses to the main controversies of the day were somewhat predictable. During the row surrounding Essays and Reviews, he organised, in various parts of his diocese, lectures on biblical authority. He wrote to Bishop Colenso of Natal to inform him that he was not welcome in Rochester diocese. Ritualism was papist and the High Church tradition embodied in the Woodard schools for the lower-middle classes was decidedly suspect. One longs for him to say something interesting.

Scotland, who teaches at the University of Gloucester, is a diligent researcher of clerical careers, which are neatly summarised. In Wigram’s case, he was, first, a prominent educationist, second, a visionary strategist, third, a model and effective parish minister, and, fourth, an exemplary missional and pastoral bishop.

So much for the CV, but where is the man? We are told that he was “warm”, but no anecdotes about the human being who was Joseph Cotton Wigram are offered in a book that is devoid of humour. Perhaps the Bishop really was all work and no play, and would have difficulty today in answering the question, “Are you a robot?” I doubt it.

Dr Michael Wheeler is a Visiting Professor at the University of Southampton.


Joseph Cotton Wigram, Bishop of Rochester: Educator, strategist, pastor and leader
Nigel Scotland
Gracewing £15.99
Church Times Bookshop £14.39

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